PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF LARELL SCARDELLI
Eight months ago, I cut refined sugar—the bad type—out of my diet. My holistic doctor suggested quitting might help me get a handle on the unexplained lethargy, acne, and headaches I was experiencing. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to go from more than 70 grams of refined sugar a day to eating less than 20. I’d constantly consult a list of foods to avoid that was secured to my refrigerator door (now my mom, boyfriend, and I have it memorized). Holidays are a true test of willpower, and going out to eat is considered a cheat, because you can’t know what’s in food if you’re not cooking it. Here’s how my life changed.
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Little did I know how much sugar was affecting my mood before this lifestyle change. “By far, the most important association between refined sugar and the human body is its effect on insulin,” explains Mark Smith, DC, a nutrition counselor and chiropractor. Because all hormones are driven or affected by insulin, my sex, stress, hunger, and metabolic hormones were out of whack. So it’s no surprise that I noticed a substantial, steady increase in energy after four weeks of going without this roller coaster ingredient in my diet. I’m no longer dragging throughout my day wishing I could lie down for a nap. Now, I wake in the morning with drive, and have that same motivation to hit the road for a run after work.
Since I started this journey eight months ago, I haven’t had one cold, which is a big deal for me, because I used to get sick at least once every season. Sugar has a major impact on harmful bacteria found in the intestines, explains lifestyle medicine physician assistant Kate Martino. Poor immune function is one major downfall of a weak digestive system. “When you reduce or eliminate sugar, it helps health-promoting bacteria flourish and heal the lining of the intestines,” says Martino. I’ve replaced refined sugar in my diet with oranges, strawberries, honey, and other nutrient-rich foods that help keep my digestive system in check and my immune system healthy.
When I started reading food labels, I was truly shocked by the amount of foods that contain refined sugar: It’s in red sauce, wheat cereal, and plain yogurt, to name just a few of my common grocery purchases from before I cut sugar. It’s a little scary, too, because refined sugar is disguised in food labels—look out for dextrin, corn syrup, or anything ending in “-ose,” advises Link. “On food labels, ingredients are arranged in order of quantity, from greatest to least,” she explains. “So anytime you spot it in the first three ingredients, an alarm should go off that it’s high in added sugar.”
When I first started grocery shopping for my new lifestyle, it took me twice as long, because I had to stop and read the labels of every item I picked up. But after two months, I had a solid sugar-free list of snacks and meals I enjoy. Now I breeze through the store filling my cart with fresh vegetables and corn chips.
I’m a huge fan of ice cream, so this switch was tough for me. My cravings were noticeable for the first three weeks. I’d grumpily cut up a banana and some strawberries, or spread almond butter and real maple syrup over a rice cake as an after dinner snack. But by the fourth week, my cravings started to dull, and I was getting better at alternative snacks. Martino suggests, “Sweeten things with whole foods like dates, figs, or pineapple. They’re high in sugar, but slow down the sugar absorption.” I also started pairing sweet fruits like apples with a handful of nuts or a bit of fatty peanut butter. “The protein and fiber slow the absorption of sugar, keeping your hormone levels and mood stable,” says Martino.
Within this dietary shift, my social life started to change in ways I hadn’t expected. “You start to meet like-minded people who are more aware and able to listen to what their bodies need,” says Samantha Krief, holistic health and wellness coach. My inner circle was suddenly filled with mindful, compassionate, and curious friends who studied everything from energy medicine to herbalism. Now, if I have a question about my diet or need a sugar-free snack recommendation, I happily consult my friends. We pass nutrition books back and forth and support each other on our wellness journeys.